Saturday, December 26, 2009

BEND OVER

I talked myself down.

If there was one thing the big tub of goo that called himself my supervisor had taught me in my first week on the job, it was to stop and think. Rushing led to mistakes. A mistake was something I couldn’t afford tonight. This was going to be my big break – the break that would send me from mild-mannered intern to actual employee.

I patted my TK's barrel in the passenger’s seat and ran through my gear in my head. I should have done it back at the station before I left, but there was no time. The way dispatch was shouting on the scanner, this had to be the end of the world.

I could see it all in my head: the flashing lights, the hoses, bodies strewn across McArthur Boulevard, acid eating a twelve-foot hole in the city’s main drag, and the lone camera of the competition capturing it all and broadcasting live while my station played MASH reruns. I could get the story for KELC-TV and save the day.

I fingered TK's blue umbilical and hoped I’d remembered everything.

I’d spent the last week watching Roosevelt and the others, studying their actions, mimicking their stance, marveling at their war stories, practicing their hundred-yard stare. Tonight, I’d earn my own.

Red, white and blue emergency lights ricocheted off reflective logos of the police and fire department vehicles ahead. A rookie cop with a flashlight and a whistle stopped me two blocks from the scene. He puffed up his chest and waved his flashlight, “Road’s closed.”

“Nicholas Brock, KELC-TV.” Dammit, I wish I had a press ID. “Lemme through.” I turned on the dome light inside my Ford Bronco and raised Icky so he could see I was a television photog.

“Emergency personnel only.” His voice squeaked as he tried to sound tough.

“I’m the press. Lemme through.”

“The area is hot. Nobody gets in.”

It never happened like this on TV. The biggest story of my week-long career was blowing up around me. Barney Fife wasn’t going to stop me. I threw my Bronco into reverse. I had to find another way in.

Barney faded from my rearview mirror, and I made a hard left into the neighborhood that backed up to the Albertson’s Shopping center. The streets were empty except for a few police officers knocking on doors, and one bed-headed resident stumbling across his lawn. I slipped into an empty driveway and turned off my lights.

The night sky glowed orange up ahead. An eerie peace had settled on the neighborhood. None of confusion from the spill site or Barney’s barricade wafted this way. I popped the hatch and loaded up: First I cinched a battery belt around my waist. Next, I loaded the tape deck’s pouches with extra batteries, locked my camera's umbilical cord into its multi-pin connector on the bottom of the tape deck, and slung the deck over my right shoulder. I dropped my tripod on top of that, threw my TK-76 on my left shoulder, and turned toward the street.

I took one leaden step.

The tape deck bounced back and forth against my left leg. My shadow looked like a bulky sci-fi robot spasming in the streetlights. My steps were just as mechanical. How the hell did the other photogs carry all this crap?

I steadied myself and took a short cut through the yard to the next block. I was missing all the good stuff: the haz/mat team in their white moon suits, thin streams of poisonous fog drifting from the crippled tanker, E.M.T.’s herding motorists chocking on toxic vapors into ambulances. My knees snapped, crackled, and popped like breakfast cereal, but I ran as best as I could with an extra sixty pounds strapped to my torso, ducking a branch here and dodging a tricycle there.

My heart pounded in my ears. Adrenaline flooded my veins. My breath erupted in short thick clouds of fog in the chilly October air. No more fetching Mr. Cranch’s coffee for me. No more strolling a darkened newsroom at night imagining myself the overnight photog -- the maestro of mayhem, rushing to fires, robberies, and the occasional drive-by “shoutings” in sleepy little Alexandria, Louisiana. This was my foot in the door, and I was about to kick it in. Good-bye shop-and-rob clerk. Hello television.

I paused trying to catch my breath before rounding the corner of the grocery store.
Generators coughed and sputtered to life. Trees of emergency work lights flooded the parking lot and the street beyond. Emergency vehicles from every agency in the city spilled into the streets almost exactly as I’d imagined it.

I took one step and promptly collapsed.